Juvenile delinquency is a social problem. Whenever juveniles commit an “offence” one must ask: Where did we go wrong? Who is to blame? Is it the juvenile him/herself or is it the juvenile’s parents, peer pressure or, perhaps, is it the educational establishment?
Children are often depicted as the image of innocence. This is because adults are not considered to be innocent to the ways of the world and the world, in turn, does not offer that much sympathy to adult criminals. However, does the world show any empathy towards juvenile criminals and, most of all, if not, should it do so?
Since children are depicted as the image of innocence, their offences take on a much darker and ghastlier nature than if an adult had committed the same crime. For instance, the world demonised Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the two British 11-year-olds who murdered Jamie Bulger in 1993. At the time, Venables and Thompson were still children who did not understand what was going on during their trial. Nevertheless, this did not render their crime less heinous. Their privacy was not protected and the tabloids lashed out at them. The world was appalled by their crimes and everyone cried for a tougher stance on juvenile crime!
It was seen as if the world had gone to the dogs: childhood was destroyed, children were frequently being seen as something to be terrified of, innocence had been long lost and children were “maturing” and being “adultified” too quickly. One might think that, in the past, children were angels and do-gooders and that, nowadays, children are just little devils who are bent on doing evil – answering back, hurling insults, hitting other children, bullying their peers, stealing, shoplifting, doing drugs and so on.
But is this possibly true, that is, are children being adultified at a much faster rate than before? Who is at fault? Are the violent video games at fault? Is it the media? Television? Films? Internet? The degeneration of the world’s moral values?
One should not look at this situation through the all-gloom-and-doom binoculars but, on the other hand, neither through rose-tinted spectacles. Juvenile crime is not something of this century, it has been with us since time immemorial and, in the past, serious crimes have been committed as well. However, this does not mean that the way we are dealing with juveniles and juvenile crime might not be a contributing factor.
The family is the central and pivotal role in a child’s life and if the family is unable to instil the values of right and wrong in a child, then that child is set for a downfall – ending up with the wrong crowd, followed by getting caught in the juvenile justice system, which further catapults the child into a life of crime. Therefore, parents were made to be responsible for the offences committed by their children. Is this fair? If the parents are not the perpetrators, why punish them at all?
In England, the parental bind-over was established where parents had to deposit a certain amount of money as a guarantee that the child would not reoffend. Is that a good thing to do? More often than not, juvenile offenders come from dysfunctional families experiencing a myriad of financial problems.
The bind-over can be seen as an extra burden on what the “evil” child did and, in turn, the parents further alienate the child, with the child turning towards what led him/her to commit the crime in the first place.
Children who feel alienated by their families tend to get involved in crime. However, is it fair to put the blame onto the families only?
Loraine Gelsthorpe, in What Is A Parent? A Socio-Legal Analysis (1999), states that “Research done by Harriet Wilson (1987) on parental supervision and David Farrington (1978, 1991) on parental discipline suggest that those parents who are harsh or erratic in their discipline are twice as likely to have children who offend... Similarly, the Cambridge-Somerville study in Boston, McCord (1979) reported that poor parental supervision was the best predictor of both violent and property crimes”. Therefore, the families have a share of responsibility and should definitely be made aware of their child’s offending behaviour, not by punishing the parents but by offering them guidance towards better parenthood for their children.
Juveniles also tend to offend if they feel alienated in schools. Second to the home, as the most frequented place by the juvenile, is the educational setting and, thus, it contributes to a fair share of juvenile offending, as stated by James W. Messerschmidt.
Sometimes, certain schools take school discipline to an entirely different level and become much akin to a crime-fighting system. For example, in Toledo, Ohio, a student was handcuffed, put in a police car and taken to the county detention centre for a dress code violation (Rimer, 2004).
As Augustina Reyes states, when students are removed from the regular classroom, whether for suspension, expulsion or placement in disciplinary alternative education centres, they are never able to catch up and end up as dropouts and living in a world of crime, which could have been prevented if not so much drastic measures were taken (Steve Tozer et al (eds), Handbook Of Research On The Socio-Cultural Foundations Of Education (2011) Routeledge, New York).
Sometimes, adults tend to be frustrated because physical discipline cannot be applied on children and some adults believe that physical punishment is the only effective solution to prevent a child from offending. However, physical punishment has been proven to be a contributing factor and not a negating one.
Discipline cannot be discouraged but should not be erratic. It should be proportionate and not physical. Unruly children should not be alienated by their families and by the educational establishment because that will contribute to their offending and will not prevent it.
Dr Mangion is a lawyer and a published author with a special interest in family and child law.